TAMPA – If Republican Josh Mandel comes from behind to win his suddenly competitive race in Ohio, then there’s a good chance the GOP will gain control of the U.S. Senate. But that still leaves the following question: what would he do to prevent a Republican Senate majority from repeating the history of the Bush era, when it colluded to dramatically expand the size of government?
“I happen to think there are a lot of Republicans who are just as guilty as Democrats for the problems in Washington,” Mandel acknowledged in an interview with the Washington Examiner just before addressing a brunch for the Ohio delegation to the Republican National Convention. “It’s not good enough to elect Republicans to the Senate and the House. We need to elect free-market conservatives and folks who understand the principles of the Constitution.”
Mandel said he is aware that, were Republicans to find themselves in control of Congress and the White House, he could be under heavy pressure to "take one for the team" -- to cast votes that will violate limited government ideals for the sake of political expedience. Just 34 years-old, he insisted that his life experience has prepared him to withstand the arm-twisting of seasoned Washington lawmakers.
“My backbone comes from two places,” he explained. “My grandfather, who was a Holocaust survivor and instilled in me the importance of being tough and courageous, and the Marine Corps, which instilled in me the importance of standing on principle and not backing down. When I take that backbone to Washington, I will use it to stand up to political leaders on both sides of the aisle. And the day that some Republican party leader puts his hand on my shoulders and says, ‘Listen son, you better vote for this legislation or else I’m going to kick you off of your committee, or else I’ll shut off your fundraising,’ I’ll look that Republican boss in the eye and tell him I don’t work for him and he can’t push me around, because I’ve been through tougher stuff than this.”
Mandel is the Treasurer of Ohio and before that he served as a representative in the state house. He’s also a veteran of the Marine Corps, where he did two tours in Iraq.
At the start of this year, Mandel looked like a sacrificial lamb in the race to unseat incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown. In January, he trailed by 15 points, according to an average of polls compiled by Real Clear Politics. But now that average has narrowed to 3.6 points, which may even be understating the tightness. Three polls taken this month have the race within one-point and a Columbus Dispatch survey released today showed it tied.
“We’re tied in the polls and confident we’re going to win if we can keep projecting our message of restoring fiscal conservatism to Washington, advancing the free enterprise system and taking on the establishment,” he said.
In a wide ranging talk, Mandel emphasized his desire to cut spending, reform the tax code and move toward a more market-oriented health care system.
He described himself as a “strong proponent” of a Balanced Budget Amendment. There’s a big debate among conservatives about whether a BBA should include a supermajority requirement to raise taxes. He said he’d be open to discussing different types of BBA designs, but he has endorsed the Congressional conservatives' “cut, cap and balance” plan, which calls for steep spending cuts, binding caps on spending and then a BBA with the supermajority requirement.
Mandel, who is popular among Tea Party groups, said he opposed the Wall Street bailout.
“I think every Democrat and every Republican who voted for the Wall Street bailout was dead wrong,” he said. “I think it was fiscally irresponsible and morally wrong to take the tax dollars of working citizens throughout this country and use them to bail out Wall Street banks. I don’t think the federal government should be in the business of picking winners and losers on Wall Street.”
On entitlements, Mandel argued that they should be untouched for those at or near retirement, but reformed for younger generations.
“Those people who advocated for the status quo, such as Sherrod Brown, they’re essentially advocating for the destruction of these programs,” he said.
Mandel stopped short of endorsing the plan that the presumptive vice presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan, offered in the House. “I have not specifically come out in support of the Ryan budget. I look forward to working with conservatives in the Senate and the House on a plan once I get there in January,” he said.
But he did endorse at least two central elements of the plan – block-granting Medicaid to the states, and simplifying the tax code.
“We need to completely dismantle the tax code and build it back up with lower tax rates and a broader base,” he said. “When multinational corporations can file a 50,000-page tax return and pay zero taxes and approximately half the American citizenry doesn’t pay any taxes our system is broken.”
On foreign policy, Mandel said, “I’m a proud American, proud Marine and proud Zionist. I think that we need to take very seriously the war against radical Islam and I think the enemy that we as Americans face is similar to the enemy that our allies in Europe face and that Israel faces as well. We have to be vigilant in this war against radical Islam. And I’m also a strong supporter of the U.S. Israel relationship.”
Yet at the same time, he said it was important to rethink where the U.S. has a military presence abroad.
“I do think it’s worth having a conversation about how our troops are deployed throughout the world and I think we need to have a conversation about whether or not it makes sense to have so many bases and troops stationed in Europe when the real fight and the real threat is elsewhere,” he said.
Mandel said he supports a foreign version of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC), which was developed at the end of the Cold War to deal with the politically unpopular task of closing bases within the U.S.
“If we can save money or trim money by closing some bases overseas, I think we can use that money to pay down debt and sustain Social Security and Medicare for future generations,” he said.
The Tea Party has thrived in recent years, in part, because the dominance of economic and debt-related issues has allowed diverse coalitions to come together. But there’s also a natural tension within the Tea Party between the non-interventionist Ron Paul contingent and more hawkish conservatives. Mandel’s answer on base closures despite his otherwise hawkish views in other areas may actually be an example of a popular Tea Party politician navigating these waters.
“I’m proud to have the support of a lot of Ron Paul supporters and libertarians throughout America who believe in limited government, free markets and a focus on domestic economic issues, one of the reasons I advocate trimming some of these bases overseas,” he said.
Mandel also mentioned another issue dear to the heart of Paul supporters.
“I also think our foreign aid program is ridiculous,” Mandel said. “[T]he fact that two months ago, the U.S. Senate appropriations committee, where my opponent Sherrod Brown sits, sent $1 billion to Pakistan in the wake of Pakistan convicting of treason the guy who helped us find Osama bin Laden is disgraceful, embarrassing and should not be tolerated.”
Mandel flew down for the day to meet with the Ohio delegation, but will be campaigning back home all week as Republicans meet for a hurricane-shortened convention.